The Boston Musical Intelligencer
John Ehrlich
December 5, 2018

With their now customary elan and enterprise, Gil Rose and Boston Modern Orchestra Project enlightened, stretched, and amused the audience Friday evening with its concert in Jordan Hall. “Trouble” reflected at least two nuances of the programming: an engaging work of that very name by Vijay Iyer (b.1971), played fearlessly and flawlessly by guest violinist Jennifer Koh, and a 1966 example by Lucas Foss’s Cello Concert (1966), played equally stunningly by Opera Boston’s principal cellist David Russell.

Carlos Surinach’s 1960 Acrobats of God, a colorfully scored work, so beguiled rhythmically that it immediately appealed to Martha Graham, who two years earlier had choreographed Surinach’s Embattled Garden. Acrobats is a multi-sectioned dance suite, with special aural color supplied by three mandolins. Their unique timbre reminded me briefly of Stravinsky’s employment of a mandolin in his 1957 Agon, another work for dance, but of a very different character.

 It was easy to hear how Surinach beguiled Graham. Acrobats is eminently danceable, especially in its final movement “Spanish Gallop.” Clifton Ingram’s helpful essay mentions the key element of this exciting concluding music: “…an ascending sweeping glissando gesture…repeated over and over by keyboard percussion, piano and harp.” While not attaining the high cerebral plane of the other numbers we heard, this Gallop was engaging and enjoyable on its own terms, and served as an ideal curtain-raiser.

Referring to “Trouble,” Rose told us how the Foss fits right in. After its premiere, in which Mstislav Rostropovich took the solo part, the New York Times asked “Is this music?” Foss, for that reviewer, had created aural trouble, and one wonders, after hearing BMOP’s traversal, whether some in that 1966 audience might have agreed. It is full of choices for the player and conductor. Many passages are “voluntary,” in that the composer offers in-performance choices of versions that appear in the score, so that each traversal becomes unique and of the moment. Foss called this his “system and chance” music. He described his Cello Concert (emphatically not “Concerto”) as “…not only for the cello, but ‘about’ the cello, not only for Rostropovich, but about ‘the virtuoso’ and about the cello idea.”

Among the score’s many unique requirements is the participation of an electronic “rival cello” heard through a loudspeaker at the stage’s apron. This phantom both abets and challenges the “live” soloist at several points in the exposition. It wasn’t clear to me whether this electronic track came with the performing materials — a usual practice — or whether  Russell had prerecorded it himself. In any case, at several times the “Cello Concert” morphed into a “Concert for (2) Celli.”

This 28-minute piece, played with remarkably self-assured vigor by Russell and Rose, ran the gamut of unusual effects, and undoubtedly fascinated and possibly frustrated many in the small but enthusiastic audience. I found it stimulating and still fresh-sounding, and at its end felt very grateful for the efforts put forth.

After intermission guest violinist Jennifer Koh came onstage, gowned in elegant royal blue, to play Vijay Iyer’s 2017/18 Trouble. She had premiered this work, dedicated to her, at both the Ojai and Tanglewood Music Festivals. Iyer is a pianist and bandleader who celebrates jazz and improvisation. His title refers to a quotation from American politician and civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, and bears repeating here:

Dr. King and others inspired me to get in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. And I think we’re going to have generations for years to come that will be prepared get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. And lead us to greater heights. It is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe many lifetimes.

The composer states “In creating (Trouble) I found myself both channeling and pushing against the supreme precarity that pervades our moment.” And, the composition reflects this in several striking ways. It begins with a disquieting sul ponticello effect from the solo violin that Koh somehow made sound amplified – the unsettling sound filled the Jordan Hall space. Iyer further writes:                 

I didn’t want to rehash the typical narrative positioning a heroic individual over or against a multitude. Koh told me that the soloist could instead be viewed as someone willing to be vulnerable…  in other words, the soloist can embody the relationship of an artist to her community: not so much a ‘leader’ or ‘hero,’ but something more like a shaman, a conduit for the forces in motion around us.

This high-minded approach to philosophical music-making seems an ideal match to Koh’s protean gifts as a soloist. She exudes empathy with the composer she is playing, allowing her gifted virtuosity to meld with that which appears to be the composer’s intent. This is a rare gift, and she has it in abundance. A good place to learn more about this remarkable musician is HERE.

Trouble, in its six movements, makes many demands of its performers, yet it falls easily on a listener’s ears. One felt, at its conclusion, that a journey had commenced and taken one to an arrival of consequence. Its message is timely, necessary, and forceful. The audience seemed rightly dazzled by Koh’s brilliant musicianship and accorded her and the BMOP players a warm and lengthy ovation.

Boston native, Harvard alumnus, and MacArthur Fellow Matthew Aucoin’s Evidence (2016) was to have closed this concert, but BMOP decided in early November that Evan Ziporyn’s Frog’s Eye (2002) would replace it — no explanation given. While I and others initially bemoaned this change, Frog’s Eye served quite handily as the closer of this intriguing concert. As with everything on this program, it contains an interesting back story.

Ziporyn tells us that Frog’s Eye is his concept of one of several frogs, bathed in the lulling waters of a pond, ”…perched on rocks in shallow water, 99 percent immersed, only their huge panoptic eyes above the water line…Keeping cool while maintaining absolute vigilance.” This particular frog observes the passing of time in the pristine New England natural world during summer. To paint this canvas, Ziporyn scores with instruments that invoke the lush green colors of an arboreal summer in the forest, among them a set of claves whose tapping tattoo in repeated diminuendo helped conjure a bosky wildlife-rich atmosphere. Later, in the last third of this enjoyable piece, one discerns a change of atmosphere with the appearance of bongo drums, bass drum, and low tom-tom which annotator Ingram posits serves as a leading back to humanity, reminding us of our limits in the face of nature. Ziporyn writes “…Meanwhile, back among the humans, we live our directed lives, cutting across the sensory present, intersecting with it, ignoring it, misapprehending, misinterpreting…We seem to be built for subjective narrative.” Who knew so much deep philosophical contemplation went on in a frog pond?

Whatever the case, the Ziporyn provided a bracing close to this remarkable concert. Aren’t we fortunate to have BMOP and Gil Rose here in Boston to play it for us?